Reviewby Theron Martin,
Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?
14-year-old Bell Cranell has come to Orararia with a singular ambition: to become one of the adventurers who explore the city's famous Dungeon (a labyrinth that is also a seemingly-endless generator of monsters of varying levels of strength) and thus use that at a springboard to meet hot adventurer babes. To his surprise, he actually succeeds at that relatively quickly but not at all in the way that he intended, as he has to be rescued from a Minotaur much too strong from him by the gorgeous Aiz Wallenstein, who is also one of the most powerful adventurers in the city. Bell fully realizes that he's nowhere near on Aiz's level in any sense of the phrase, so he dedicates himself to getting stronger so that he can be worthy of her, much to the consternation of his sponsoring goddess Hestia (aka “Loli Big Boobs,” since she looks like a child except for being very well-endowed). But Hestia has also taken a liking to the one and only member of her dirt-poor Familia (essentially a company sponsored by a god or goddess which in turn helps the support the divine being during his/her time in the human world), so she does everything she can to help him. What worries her, though, is that Bell seems to have a unique skill, one that, with the right motivation, allows him to develop his strength and skills as an adventurer with inordinate speed. She's also not entirely aware that Bell is attracting attention that could be dangerous both to her and Bell, such as from Freya, the notoriously fickle goddess of beauty and a long-time rival of Hestia's. If the Dungeon doesn't get Bell, all of the female attention he is unwittingly garnering very well could.
When Japanese light novel series get American releases, they almost invariably start because an anime adaptation has proven successful with American audiences. Sure, the novels released in the States may eventually surpass the animated content (see Spice and Wolf, amongst others), but that initial built-in audience is always there. This new novel series, also known in Japan as DanMachi for short, is either an aberration or the start of a new trend, as its first novel is getting released in the U.S. months before its anime adaptation even premieres, much less gets an American physical release. (It is due to air in the Spring 2015 season, courtesy of J.C. Staff.) Just a glance at its title explains why Yen Press probably opted to take a chance on it, though: a title like that practically demands attention from anime and fantasy gaming fans.
As with many light novels, the biggest strength of Dungeon is its setting. The world where Oraria is located is one where gods with familiar names – Hestia, Hephaistos, Loki, and Freya among them – have descended to the world out of boredom and now live amongst humans and various demi-human races, including elves, dwarves, animal people, and another race suggested to be roughly equivalent to halflings. By a mutual pact amongst the gods, they cannot use most of their divine power in this world, but they can bestow their blessings on hardy souls to empower them as adventurers. This involves reading and regularly updating the adventurer's excelia, which are essentially RPG-like listings of stats and skills imprinted on an adventurer's back in hieroglyphs. As the stats improve, the adventurer gets more powerful and can even level up (although what, exactly, that entails is not entirely clear so far), which means that he or she can safely tackle more difficult monsters. All of the adventurers and craftsmen who take the blessing of a particular god become that god's Familia, and whether or not different Familia get along depends largely on whether or not their patrons get along. Having romantic relationships between members of two different Familia is also a problem, since it can create divided loyalties, which is, of course, yet another problem that Bell could face down the road.
The other interesting aspect of the setting is the Dungeon at its center. It is multilayered, with walls that generate monsters according to the level one is on. Each monster has a magical stone imbedded in its body which can be sold to an overseeing Guild for money – and the Guild in turn sells them to empower devices like widely-available magical lights. So yes, there is an actual economic mechanism supporting all of the adventurers and their dungeon-delving. The origins of the Dungeon are, of course, a mystery even to the gods.
All of this taken together make this sound like a fantasy RPG come to life in a crudely mechanical way, and that was probably precisely the point. (In fact, the possibility that this is actually the inside of a game has not been discounted.) The writing is also fully in love with detailing its setting, with easily a quarter of its 213 pages primarily devoted to that, and the story is clearly shading in a harem-like direction. This would seem to cast the novel as disposable, amateurish tripe, but three factors prevent that: the level of author Fujino Ōmori's writing skill is actually higher than average, he delivers well on action scenes and descriptions of how Bell's increases in his stats affect the way he fights, and he avoids the all-too-common complaint of not detailing his core cast of characters well enough. By the end of the novel we have a very good sense of who most of the major players are and where they stand, especially Bell and Hestia.
One other factor which distinguishes Dungeon is its very unusual storytelling structure. The way it shifts focus between several different characters over the course of the novel isn't that unusual, but the way it changes its viewpoint is. When the story focuses on Bell, it is in first person mode; when it focuses on other characters (primarily Hestia), it transitions to third person instead. This is quite jarring at first, and perhaps is meant to mimic the way the viewpoint of a player in a tabletop or console-based RPG can shift between first person and third person depending on the scene. Omori eventually does make it work, however, and it does give readers a broader understanding of both Bell and what is going on around and concerning him.
Yen Press's production effort is fairly typical. Instead of multiple pages of glossy artwork at the beginning, it only has a tri-fold picture depicting the four most prominent goddesses in the story. (Hephaistos and Loki are both female in this setting, although there are definitely male gods, too.) Both them and the cover hart have a manga-like aesthetic to them, while the style in the numerous interior art pieces is a little more distinct but hardly impressive. The release also includes a couple of pages of character and item info and a short Epilogue which flashes back to how Hestia and Bell first met and Hestia became Bell's sponsor. It concludes with a two-page Afterword by the author.
Dungeon is listed as “volume 1” and, based on where the story ends, is definitely not intended to stand on its own. While it does wrap up a dramatic event at its end, it gives every indication that this is merely the first part of a much longer story; indeed, at the time of this writing, six novels in the main series and three spin-off novels have been published. Based on the pacing of events here, I estimate that the upcoming anime series will encompass the first three novels, or possibly two with excerpts from a third, as this feels like 4-5 episodes worth of content. However that shakes out, the anime's success or failure will depend heavily on whether or not it can duplicate (or even improve upon) the novel's delicate balancing act between game-like mechanics and actual storytelling. Here Omori pulls it off, but just barely.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : C+
+ Interesting setting and concept, handles action scenes well.
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